Press Adds Bad News to the Good


In recent weeks, Vietnam’s press has reported on slumping exports, rising inflation, urban power blackouts, rampant corruption, drug use among teenagers and another foreign airline--this time Qantas of Australia--ending service to Vietnam because of dwindling passenger loads.

Such candid reporting of gloomy events may seem unusual in a country where the Communist government controls all publications and the party’s Commission of Culture and Ideology meets every Tuesday to decide which issues Vietnam’s 77 million people will be told about in the days ahead.

But in the nine years since the government took the first steps toward an open-market economy--without ever acknowledging that a free flow of information was important to the development of reforms--the Vietnamese press has begun to touch on national problems rather than just champion Communist accomplishments.

The gains, though small, have given Vietnam’s 7,000 reporters and editors (starting salary: about $40 a month) their first hint that propaganda and journalism are unrelated creatures.


“There is no question we have more freedom today,” said Nguyen Duc Tuan, an editor at La Dong (Labor), which has 80,000 daily readers and sells for 12 cents. “In the old days, we basically had no news. Now, reporters like to see how far they can push to get stories printed.”

Since reforms started in 1989, newspaper layouts have gotten brighter, and editors have become responsible for the content of their publications. In addition, government subsidies have been cut, forcing business managers to accept advertisements and start harping about the need to turn a profit. There also has been a dramatic increase--to 368--in the number of newspapers and magazines published in Vietnam.

The government--and, in fact, most reporters--still consider the media a tool of national development. “My stories should be in harmony with the public,” said one experienced reporter, meaning that she doesn’t write about private lives, dissent, religion or anything that reflects debate inside or outside the party and government.

Such caution is understandable, because reporters can be charged with treason for revealing information that the leadership considers sensitive.


One editor was fired last year for printing a story that said revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh was once married--the official line is that Ho was too wedded to the cause to ever take a wife. Another was arrested for a series on the paramilitary custom agency’s illegal purchase from Ukraine of four speedboats.

Certainly no Western reader would confuse Hanoi Moi (New Hanoi) with the Times of London. Nor, however, would one confuse it with the drab, crude Communist propaganda sheets that characterized the Vietnamese media in the 1970s.

If journalism is an evolutionary process in a developing nation, then Vietnam’s reportage is evolving--moving, however timidly, away from the mind-set that there is no news but good news and that good news is what fuels the people’s patriotic zeal.

While the influence, profitability and credibility of newspapers have slipped in the United States, almost everyone reads (and trusts) newspapers in Vietnam. They are probably the party’s most essential tool in maintaining power.


Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) alone has 35 newspapers and magazines, Hanoi 10. They range from old-fashioned party mouthpieces, such as Nhan Dan (The People), to dailies such as Tien Phong (Pioneer) that attract younger readers with a mix of sports, culture, crime and national news. Vietnam also publishes national dailies in English and French, largely for the foreign community, and several English-language business periodicals.

Generally, the press is livelier in Ho Chi Minh City than in Hanoi, reflecting the different character of the two cities as much as the south’s longer relationship with the West. But papers in all regions reveal a sameness in news judgment because of governmental controls.

When, for instance, the party decided that Princess Diana’s death in a car crash last year had been sufficiently written about, coverage ended overnight, in every paper, even though the story itself was still unfolding.

“I think we have all the freedom we need now,” said one senior reporter, reflecting a widely held belief that economic advancement is more important than democratic growth. “Besides, no one has total freedom in the press. Were American reporters allowed complete freedom in the Gulf War?”